Sunk by a whale – Life in a life raft (Part 2), by Gordon Webb.

This is the story of Pionier, an entrant in the inaugural Cape To Rio Race in 1971, as told by her skipper Gordon Webb. Fifty years ago on the 27th of January, Pionier and her crew of five were almost halfway to Rio when the yacht hit a whale around midnight and sunk. Her crew of five just made it onto her life raft.

We must have all been in a state of shock – how long had all of this taken? Our combined estimates of the time from impact to sinking was fifteen minutes.

What a change in our accommodations! One moment a well-ordered modern yacht with all the facilities and the next a dimly-lit, grossly overloaded, sodden rubber igloo somewhat overpopulated. The shambles inside our 6’x 5’ home was incredible. Officially a six man raft, we had six, 50-pound polyethylene cans of water, five bodies, a heap of sodden clothing, a jumbled mess of food and an odd assortment of articles from a kettle to a sextant.

It was Willie who first came to his sense and realised that we were overloaded. Were we glad we had not filled our water tanks from the plastic containers! We had 30 gallons of water – a lifesaving commodity, but we could not carry it in the raft. One can had got holed and was leaking. It had to be nursed by someone constantly keeping the hole uppermost.

Willie suggested we tow the water cans. I was reluctant to lose contact with the water, but after a brief discussion we decided to tow all but the one with the hole in it. There was a knife in the raft plus we had brought one with us and I cut the luff rope and taping from the small red sail we had taken with us and used it as a lashing.

Over the side went our four white containers – bobbing happily astern in our wake as we drifted down with the wind. We settled down as best we could, wet through, in pools of water, with little or no clothing. The tangle of ten legs was the major concern. Willie had wrenched his knee and was in considerable pain but had no space to stretch his leg out. The problems of living in a life raft had to be sorted out urgently.

Jennifer led the field and tried out the “ablution block”. How does one go to the toilet on a rubber raft? Everyone wants to know this, but let me assure you, this was a rough way to find out.  The homely toilet paper was a luxury beyond our wildest dreams.  We solved this one and after all the Arabs have got along pretty well without it for centuries. There was certainly no shortage of water. The mechanics of getting into the operational position without disappearing over the edge was a major problem, however. The raft manufacturers had probably considered this aspect and strategically placed hanging straps inside and outside the raft.

Jennifer had decided to remain where she was, sitting on the edge of the life raft.  She takes up the narrative: “It was a balmy night with the friendly stars twinkling overhead. I decided to stay where I was sitting at our “front door”, keep watch and try to rationalise my racing thoughts. Willie, Gordon, Tony and Peter were settling down to try and sleep in the wet sticky mess below. I was very awake, and sleep was an impossible consideration. I scanned the horizon – it was ringed with the usual low clouds, but what I was looking for was a red and green light….

“Somehow, deep down, I knew that the Mayday had not been received and instinctively I knew Peter realized the same. I questioned him on his broadcast. Did he think the people he’d heard talking, had heard him? Did he have the volume on full? There had been voices that he had not heard again after his message and they were speaking English. What use were these questions though, I asked myself as the ghastly reality of our situation slowly crept over me.

“I thought of our two little girls. Both of us were here. Then I realized that no matter what happened, I had to force myself to fight the grim new challenge ahead, to get out of this and get back to them. I searched my mind trying to remember all the things I had read about castaways and how to handle the situation.

I carefully considered the food we had salvaged – we actually had a fair amount and properly controlled it would sustain us for a while. Water was no problem, and this was our greatest hope. How would we react mentally? As I sat up there scantily clad in my half bikini and my loose shirt, my stomach turned and churned with the shock of the sudden and dramatic change in our circumstances. The inescapable fact was that the whole balance had changed – instead of fighting life we were just beginning to fight death.”

Gordon takes over the story: We stirred from our fitful sleep with the first rays of the sun, from a cold clammy night. Pools of water collected at all points of pressure on the thin flexible rubber floor of the raft. What a sight! Broken eggs, sodden clothes, raisins and oat cereal that had burst its package, four mugs, a kettle, sundry food cans, a bed sheet, a sleeping bag, remains of a Christmas cake in tin foil, but obviously slept on, flares, one smoke signal, two bags of emergency equipment stored in the raft and that damned sextant, which in its hard wooden box got in everyone’s way, a nautical almanac and our only reading material – a book on Meteorology – plus five sodden bodies and a bottle of whiskey!

Willie dug in the emergency packs, all beautifully wrapped and out came an instruction card for survival. He read to us which types of icebergs we may use for drinking, but this hardly applied to us. However, this was not a pleasant study of the safety instructions in the comfort of ones home. This was the real thing and Willie had a rapt audience.

We sat one on watch while the rest started cleaning up our tiny flexible world. The wet clothing was draped over the canopy to dry, but every movement in the raft caused something to drop overboard. The whole contraption was incredibly flexible, and every movement cause alarming convolutions. As the day wore on, it became very hot in the raft and apart from changing watches, we lay still to conserve energy. How long would this last?

I was also sure our brief Mayday calls on the low-powered radio had not been picked up. I felt sure we would eventually be found, but it would be a long time.  We had plentiful water, but of food there was little. In this cramped little space we sat with our legs crisscrossed over each other, constantly wet under our bodies and I wondered how long before we physically showed signs of deterioration. I was quietly taking stock of my companions and weighing up their ability to cope with the situation mentally.

While safe on Pionier Peter had told us of a fascinating book he had recently read, where a group of people were cast away on a life raft and eventually were driven in desperation to kill one of their members so that the others had food to sustain them.  We jokingly debated who among us would be the best kill. I was a favourite as I had the most volume, but Jennifer was considered as the most tender. Once in our life raft, this did not seem so funny and no one referred to it.

Willie estimated that it would be three weeks, at least, before it would dawn on the race officials that we were in trouble and another week before a search was mounted. I suspected it would only be a token search, as finding a speck in this enormous ocean was a feat requiring a Naval Task Force and not one slow supply ship. Tony took the watch. He had earned a reputation on Pionier for his ability to find wind whenever he took the wheel and now our hopes were pinned on him. It seemed a hopeless job.

It was about four o’clock in the afternoon when Tony said, very quietly, “I think I can see a ship, Gordon will you come and have a look?” I did not think he could have been right, but a moment’s glance showed me he was right. How was this possible? No ships came this way and I could not believe my eyes. With masterly control the other lay quietly in the raft saying nothing and keeping quite still.

Willie had grabbed the one smoke signal on his way off Pionier and this we must use, but we had only one. It must not misfire, and we must not let it go off too soon. I carefully watched the ship, read and re-read the instructions to make sure I made no mistakes. None of us had seen one of these work before and we did not know what to expect. We had two parachute flares for night use, but Willie had one ready should the ship not see our smoke.

The ship made a slight alteration of course towards us – could they have sighted this small orange dot? “She is changing course towards us” I cried incredulously. When I judged the time right, I ripped off the flare cover, pulled the trigger and flung it thirty feet away from us.  A thick orange smoke arose but it scudded across the water on a wide front and to my dismay, only about two feet above the water. I was sure I had thrown it too soon. The ship seemed to be taking an age to reach us, but suddenly we heard about five or six blasts from her whistle. Now we knew – we were all but saved. There was a cheer from the five drowned rats and more than one had moist eyes.

She came up to windward of us and stopped – the SS Potomac, a name that will live with us for the remainder of our lives. We had been only a mere nineteen hours in the raft and here was a ship – an American one, old and somewhat rusty, that perhaps you wouldn’t spare a second glance for in any harbour, but for five desperate people the most beautiful looking ship we had ever seen. Soon after climbing aboard, the Captain came and introduced himself. We had a terrific meal and were given clothing, razors, toothbrushes, shoes and even Chanel No. 5 for Jennifer.

SS Potomac Captain Hansen top right, with 3rd mate Mr Roy Newkirk below him

We owe our rescue to a quirk of Captain Hansen’s in taking his ship off the normal tracks to avoid the ocean currents against him, and the sharp eyes of Mr Newkirk, the 3rd mate, who with a lifetime of experience behind him spotted this orange dot on the horizon between swells and alerted the Captain. After he spotted our smoke flare, he pressed the alarm button and blew the whistle – the first time he had done this since 1941.

Next time we conclude this incredible story with an interview with Jennifer.  She shares her thoughts and suggestions on life rafts and the do’s and don’ts on staying alive at sea.

To read Part 1 of the story, click here.


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